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Poles in European revolutions 1848-1849.

The collapse of the Springtime of the Peoples in Galicia and in the Great Duchy of Poznan did not end the military attempts of the Poles to rebuild an independent Polish state. Awave of political refugees that flowed from Poland into western Europe was ready to support the revolutionary movements of 1848-49, seen as a chance to achieve this goal. One of the first initiatives was an idea of Adam Mickiewicz to form a Polish legion in Italy. After several unsuccessful attempts to gain papal support for the idea, on March 27, 1848 Mickiewicz together with fourteen other Polish activists signed in Rome an act establishing a voluntary Polish legion with the purpose of fighting against the Austrians at the side of the Italian army. A political program and ideological guideline of the Legion was included in SkLad zasad czyli Symbol polityczny Polski [A collection of principles or a Political symbol of Poland], written by Mickiewicz. The formation of the Legion met with strong opposition both from the Italian political right and from the right of the Polish emigration, the Hôtel Lambert (a special envoy of the Hôtel, Wladyslaw Zamoyski attempted to deprive Mickiewicz of the leadership of the Legion). On May 1 Mickiewicz, heading eleven members of the Legion, arrived in revolutionary Milan, where they were joined by a military detachment of Polish emigrants, commanded by colonel Mikolaj Kaminski. Mickiewicz proposed to the government of Lombardy a formation of the Polish Legion; the concept was only partly realized; on May 3 the provisional government in Milan issued an official permission to enlarge the Legion to six hundred people. Financial problems and lack of armament and equipment slowed down the organization of the Legion; nevertheless, at the end of June the first company of the Legion, consisting of one hundred twenty persons commanded by Kamiński was sent to the front and joined the volunteer corps of general Durando; the company fought its first battle on August 6 at Lonato at Garda lake, when the Italian front broke as a result of the defeat at Custozza on July 25; the Polish company covered the retreat of general Durando's corps. The battle at Lonato was the only one fought by the Legion during the Italian-Austrian campaign; after the armistice Lombardy was taken over by Austria; after joining its cadre in Milan, the Legion concentrated in Velletri. Meanwhile, Mickiewicz recruited new volunteers in Paris; poverty, disease and anti-democratic propaganda of the Hôtel Lambert contributed to dissatsifaction within the Legion, and despite new volunteers, its reconstruction proved impossible; similarly unsuccessful (hampered by Russian and Prussian diplomacy) were attempts undertaken by Wladyslaw Zamoyski to form Polish troops in Piedmont. In September 1848 groups of Polish volunteers from France fought in Livorno; in April 1849 another group commanded by Aleksander Fijalkowski fought in Piedmont, defending Genoa which rose up against the royal power; in May and June the remnants of Mickiewicz's Legion, supported by new volunteers (altogether numbering about two hundred) were called by Mazzini to take part in the defense of the Roman Republic which was besieged by the French; after the collapse of Rome, the Mickiewicz Legion was disarmed by the French; altogether about five hundred volunteers served in the Legion during fifteen months of its existence.

In addition to Polish troops, Polish generals also fought in Italy, commanding Italian troops. In October 1848 general Wojciech Chrzanowski was nominated chief of staff of the army in the Kingdom of Sardinia and succeeded in its reorganization and enlargement; nevertheless, the army was not ready for the war against the more numberous Austrian troops, which began on March 20, 1849, and consequently was defeated in the battle at Novara on March 23. After the outbreak of the revolution in Sicily against the king of Naples Ferdinand II, Ludwik Mieroslawski, newly released from a Prussian prison, took up command of the revolutionary Sicilian troops; weak and poorly organized, the troops were defeated during the siege of Catania; wounded Mieroslawski left Sicily and went to France.

Many Poles distinguished themselves in the revolution in Vienna, especially general Józef Bem, who commanded the defence of the city, formed new military units, reinforced the fortifications and organized artillery; the Poles in Vienna formed a cavalry unit of sixty persons, armed with lances with Polish guidons, swords and pistols; it was Bem's personal escort.

After the collapse of Vienna, Bem struggled through to Hungary; at the end of November 1848 he took over the command of a revolutionary army in Transylvania; within two weeks he reorganized its remnants into three brigades and gained a series of spectacular victories over the Austrians and Russians in Transylvania and in Banat; Bem also organized his own Polish legion and considered offensive actions in Galicia. At the beginning of 1849, general Henryk Dembinski took up command of two Hungarian corps at the river Cisa; then, temporarily, he was nominated commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army. The fate of Transylvania was sealed after the defeat of Bem at Nagyszebenon August 6, 1849; on August 8 Bem was nominated commander-in-chief of the Hungarian army (replacing general Dembinski), and was soon defeated in the battle at Temesvar.

In the meantime, the collapse of the revolution in Galicia and the Great Duchy of Poznan, increasing repressions and fear of incorporation into the enemy army, made many young people from all over Poland struggleen masse through the Galician border to Hungary. From the spring of 1848 numerous negotiations were going on between the leader of the Hungarian revolution, Lajos Kossuth, and Polish representatives regarding formation of a Polish legion in Hungary; from the end of 1848 pro-Hungarian committees in Cracow, Lvov and other Galician towns organized the recruitment and transfer of Polish volunteers to Hungary. On October 20, 1848 Jozef Wysocki signed an agreement with the Hungarian government to form a Polish infantry battalion of about a thousand two hundred soldiers; the Hungarian government also permitted the organization of smaller volunteer Polish troops, independent of Wysocki's Legion. Initially, Wysocki's legion consisted of only two companies, altogether of about troops; in December it took part in the siege of the Arad fortress; in the spring of 1849 it participated in all important battles at Szolnok, Hatvan, Tapio-Biczke and Isaszegh; in May it was reorganized and merged with other Polish troops and in July there were altogether about three thousand volunteers organized into three infantry battalions, two cavalry regiments and two half-batteries of artillery; after the battle at Temesvar in August 1849, and the Hungarian capitulation at Vilagos, the remnants of the Legion (about eight hundred men) escaped to Turkey.

Since 1841 there had existed a Polish legion in Walachia, reorganized in 1846 and named Poludniowa Legia Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej [The Southern Legion of the Polish Republic], which was to participate in a revolution in Bukovina and Moldavia, planned for 1847; in 1848 the Legion, consisting of four hundred men, was to fight in a revolution in Walachia (on the basis of an agreement between the Walachian government and representatives of the Legion); however, attacked by the Russian Cossacks on its way to Walachia, the Legion had to change its route and by the time it arrived at its destination, in September 1848 Wallachia had collapsed; between September and October the Legion fought three skirmishes with the Russian troops and was shattered.

In April 1849 German activists of the Frankfurt Left appealed to the governing body [Centralizacja] of the Polish Democratic Society for cooperation and support of the German revolutionary movement; as a result,two agents of the Centralizacja, Heltman and Krzyzanowski, arrived in Dresden and joined the staff preparing the outbreak of the revolution in south-western Germany. With the revolution in Dresden, on May 4, a revolutionary provisional government was established, with the Poles involved as advisers; the quick suppression of the Dresden revolution destroyed the plans for future cooperation. On May 22, 1849 Polish general Franciszek Sznajde was nominated commander of military forces in the Palatinate, and Ludwik Mieroslawski took general command of the republican army in Baden, including a Polish legion of about three hundred; after several successful skirmishes with the Prussian troops, the army finally surrended to a superior number of Prussians at Rastatt; altogether about five hundred Polish volunteers, including many officers, participated in the struggles in Baden and the Palatinate. Superior Prussian troops, a decline in revolutionary zeal among the leaders of the revolution in Baden, poor organization and desertions, all contributed to the final collapse of revolutionary movement in the second half of June 1849.

Polish military activity during the Springtime of the Peoples 1848-1849 was aimed at regaining the independence of Poland through supporting revolutionary and liberation movements; the collapse of the 1848 revolutions buried Polish hopes for many decades to come.

Jolanta T. Pekacz


H. Batowski, Legion Mickiewicza w kampanii wlosko -austriackiej 1848 roku. Warsaw, 1956.

K. Dach, "Poludniowa Legia Rzeczpospol itej Polskiej (1841-1848),Kwartalnik Historyczny 84 (1977), 35-47.

S. Kieniewicz, Czyn polski w okresie Wiosny Ludów. Warsaw, 1948.

S. Kieniewicz, Legion Mickiewicza. Warsaw, 1957.

E. Kozlowski, Legion polski na Wegrzech, 1848-1849. Warsaw, 1983.

A. Owsińska, Powstanie palatynacko-badenskie 1849 oraz udzial w nim Polakow. Wroclaw, 1965.

Jolanta T. Pekacz

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© 1997 James Chastain.